‘Historic’ Flint Manslaughter Charges Will Change How We Prosecute Environmental Crimes

Is this a tipping point for environmental law?
June 15, 2017, 3:24pm
Air Force responders distribute water in Flint, Michigan. Image: Ray Crayton/US Air Force

Three years since families in Flint started feeling the impact of their contaminated water supply, little justice has been served. Thousands of people in the Michigan city continue to buy and use bottled water for drinking and bathing, and Congress has yet to take a conclusive stand on one of the country's most pressing environmental issues.

This week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed more criminal charges against government officials involved in allowing Flint's water supply to remain contaminated. Five state officials were charged with manslaughter—a move that experts say could shape the future of environmental law and regulation.

"The health crisis in Flint has created a trust crisis in the Michigan government," Schuette said at a press conference on Tuesday. He announced the charges against officials, including Liane Shekter-Smith, the state's former top drinking water official, and Nick Lyon, the state's director of Health and Human Services.

Lyon allegedly knew about the outbreak of Legionnaires disease, caused by a bacteria that was found in Flint's contaminated water, but didn't take immediate action. And the result of his negligence was fatal. "Nick Lyon failed to inform the public of this health threat—a threat which cost the life of Robert Skidmore," Schuette said.

The latest charges concern the death of Skidmore, and twelve other people who died of complications from the Legionnaires' outbreak. That takes this case beyond neglect and corruption, said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the University of Vermont who has previously served as the environmental commissioner to his state.

Pat Parenteau, a law professor at the University of Vermont. Image: Pat Parenteau

"Involuntary manslaughter falls under the rubric of homicide," he told me. "A lot of us were probably surprised to see a charge like that."

Parenteau said what happened in Flint is a concentrated version of what happens across the country every day. State officials are tasked with testing their water and communicating what they find to their communities. But a combination of budget cuts and negligence means they cut a lot of corners.

That's partly why thousands of communities—as Reuters investigated—have elevated levels of lead and other issues with their water, and thousands of children across the country have tested for lead poisoning.

Parenteau said these issues are not always enforced or prosecuted. But the manslaughter charges, which he believes are "historic", could be unprecedented in environmental law, and put officials on high alert.

"Those kinds of individuals who might've thought they were immune—not many of them are thinking they're going to jail," he said. "That's gotta send a very strong signal to a lot of people who are not used to complying."

The US has a spotty record when it comes to prosecuting environmental crimes, even with legislation like the Safe Drinking Water Act. Most high-profile cases—like the BP oil spill—have been against corporations, and the charges are usually settled through plea bargains. And even when the Flint crisis gained public attention, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was slow to act under the Barack Obama Administration.

"Those kinds of individuals who might've thought they were immune—not many of them are thinking they're going to jail"

It remains to be seen whether the government officials charged in the Flint case will face convictions or even go to trial. And the Donald Trump administration's budget cuts to the EPA might make resolving this issue more difficult. But Parenteau is confident that the strong criminal charges will be a wake up call for those protecting our drinking water, and perhaps for those of us who are just starting to understand the threats to our clean water.

"These are all elements of criminal intent," he said.